There he would be, stage right, dressed almost always in a shirt – usually white, or blue denim – with one too many buttons undone, untucked over blue jeans, white sneakers on his feet.
His white Telecaster would be held with its neck at a 45-degree angle – the better to synchronise swinging it with his Status Quo bandmate of decades, Francis Rossi – and from it would come riff after riff after riff after riff, unyielding, implacable.
I dare you to laugh at Rick Parfitt. People did, often and long, but they were wrong. Parfitt was one of the greatest British rock’n’rollers, and if Status Quo had long since passed into light entertainment, so what? They had earned the right to make money, playing to appreciative crowds; they had earned the right to do whatever they wanted. It’s just a shame Parfitt couldn’t be with them on stage until the end – at their gigs in the run-up to Christmas, illness had made him an absentee.
You didn’t go to Quo for chameleonic reinvention, like Bowie. You didn’t expect a mastery of styles and intoxicating sexuality, as with Prince. You’d look long and hard for insight into Cohenesque insight into the human condition. But what you did get, especially from the classic “Frantic Four” line-up of the 1970s, was rock’n’roll as a physical force, something that hit you like a cannonball. Their breakthrough album, 1972’s Piledriver, was aptly named.
When the Frantic Four reunited for a series of gigs in 2013 and 2014, they were a reminder of what Quo had been, and a lesson that it was well within their powers to return to that. And at the centre of that bludgeoning onslaught was the rhythm guitar of Parfitt, his downstrokes turning his right hand into a blur, hitting the barre chords again, again, again, again. And when he took to the mic to perform one of his own songs, Rain, it was as heavy in its own way as anything I had ever seen on the stage at the Eventim Apollo, or Hammersmith Odeon, or whatever you want to call it – as crushing as Slayer or Iron Maiden or Judas Priest or Them Crooked Vultures. It was breathtaking.
Quo’s music – so often characterised as “heads-down, no-nonsense, mindless boogie” – was hardly sophisticated, but it gets treated with a contempt it really doesn’t deserve. It’s true that even in their heyday their albums could be patchy, but at their best they were punk before punk, their dedication to stripping away the fripperies as wholehearted as the Ramones, and their willingness to turn the blues into a hypnotic drone making them something akin to a Norwood Neu!, as Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley once suggested to me.
It would be fair to say that Parfitt never seemed to make any great claims for profundity. He appeared happy enough for Quo to be A Bit Of A Larf – hence the appearances in ropy films (Bula Quo!), the cheerful admission that he and Rossi were off their nuts on cocaine through the recording of Band Aid – rather than one of the building blocks of British rock music.
Beneath it all, though, and for a long time, there was darkness. His two-year-old daughter drowned in 1980; he had recurrent health problems – a heart attack and a quadruple bypass in 1997, another heart attack, another heart attack. And the drugs and drink years turned out not to have been a non-stop party.
“Through the late 70s and all through the 80s I was a bit of an ogre,” he told our own Simon Hattenstone in 2007. “I fell into the sex, drugs, rock’n’roll big time, and Richard, my eldest son, saw me at my worst. It was a big shock for him and he deserted me. I don’t blame him ’cos I was just not with it, I wasn’t here … Richard has described me as turning into a Mr Hyde. He said, you just became a different person, and it was almost like being out of a movie where you’d wake up and all the facial hair had gone and the claws had been drawn back, and you wake up and you’re this normal person for a very short space of time until you decide to drink the potion again. For three or four years he didn’t talk to me, and he came back to me at about 14. Wisely his mother kept him away from me.”
So the cheery, laughing man you saw on stage had won the right to that persona. And for all his rock star affectations – the flapping shirt, the bling, the golden mane that had started to look a bit out of place quite a long time ago – the thing about Parfitt was that he didn’t seem like a rock star, so much as what an ordinary bloke would be like if he were transformed into a rock star.
That might account for the love people had for Quo, for they really were a group who were loved. That’s why they could continue playing arenas – because they were, in a way that only hard rock bands really can be, a “people’s group”. They were reminiscent of things that people like, rather than the things they aspire to – a night at the pub, rather than on the dancefloor at Studio 54; a day trip to the seaside, instead of a month in Mustique; chewing the fat with your mates, not trying to think of something to say to a supermodel. And at the heart of it was what seemed to be a deep and genuine love between Parfitt and Rossi, bandmates for almost 50 years, and friends for longer.
Mystery and magic have a place in rock’n’roll, of course they do. But so, too, do their less exciting counterparts – familiarity, reliability, certainty. Parfitt and Status Quo embodied those characteristics, and they shouldn’t be scoffed at. No one says of Nile Rodgers, “Yes, but all he does is disco.” They celebrate the fact that he took one thing and took it to a state of perfection. Of course, disco is glamorous; it’s flashing lights and beautiful people and New York and the thrill of the night. Status Quo were last orders and the geezer in the tour T-shirt and Croydon and the bus home. But that’s life. To be perfect at one small part of music’s great display is a colossal achievement in itself. Goodbye, Rick Parfitt. You were one of rock’s heroes.
This article was written by Michael Hann, for theguardian.com on Saturday 24th December 2016 16.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010